Finding Business Insights in Unexpected Sources

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“To be original, seek your inspiration from unexpected sources,” a creative director at a major advertising firm once noted. To be sure, unexpected sources can often inspire.

Consider the Swiss engineer George de Mestro, who invented Velcro in 1948 after noticing that cockleburs stuck to his clothing. More recently, Britain’s largest children’s hospital revamped its patient handoff techniques between surgical teams by copying the choreographed pit stops of Italy’s Formula One Ferrari racing team.

The notion that companies can gain insights by looking beyond the confines of their own industries or knowledge domains is the basis for Inventables, a company that sends R&D teams at Fortune 500 companies packages of gizmos with “unexpected properties.” The idea is to inspire innovative thinking by giving inventors unusual technologies and suggesting various applications.
When seeking business insights, I often look to such unexpected sources as Zen koans, Hindi parables and Aesop’s fables. I find myself leafing through classics like Zen Flesh, Zen Bones and The Panchatantra, a collection of Sanskrit animal fables that dates from 200 BC, and thinking about how these stories apply in the context of technology-enabled business initiatives. In most cases, the insights are abundant.

Take, for example, the Hindi fable about a king who instructs his people to save now, while times are good, in case a day should come when skies turn gray. The king orders his people to dig a deep well. He then decrees that every subject throughout the kingdom line up before the new well with a full cup of milk and pour it in.

The next day, eagerly expecting to behold a rich pool of white milk, the king peers into the well only to discover that it contains nothing but water. Not a single drop of milk.
What happened? Human nature happened. Everybody thought their actions would go undetected and be of little consequence if they substituted water for milk. After all, everybody else, presumably, would be adding only milk.

Different versions of this fable play out every day in major enterprises, particularly with respect to initiatives that demand collaboration and shared contributions. In fact, that’s a key research finding in a new Gleansight benchmark report that looks at best practices in enterprise collaboration. According to 94% of Top Performers, putting incentives in place that ensure employee participation is the best way for a company to maximize the value of its investment in an enterprise collaboration initiative.

“Respondents overwhelmingly cited incentives as the most important strategy for ensuring success,” says Jim Nail, research fellow at Gleanster, who authored the report. “Change is hard, but proper rewards encourage the new actions and habits that begin the process. Given the scope of change that a collaboration platform likely represents, incentives shouldn’t be a one-time program but evolve over several months to lead users in to deeper engagement with the platform until collaboration becomes the new normal.”

By the way, those “proper rewards” should be tied not only to individual incentives but also to team incentives. Again, human beings are generally loath to change their behavior unless given a good reason to do so. Incentives are what get them to work harder or work differently, whether it’s pouring milk into a well or pouring thoughts into a social software solution. But only if they are the right incentives.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Jeff Zabin
Jeff Zabin is research director at Starfleet Research, which benchmarks best practices in technology-enabled business initiatives, and CEO of Starfleet Media, the leading provider of content marketing programs tailored to meet the inbound marketing and lead generation needs of B2B companies in selected niche markets. A bestselling business author, he previously served as vice president and research fellow at Aberdeen Group.

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